Saturday, December 26, 2009

Should I query an agent with several books at once?

"Mr. Lukeman: My second book was just published in November. Is it too late for me a find an agent to represent my financial interests going forward on this work? If it is not, do agents typically expect a lower percentage of the revenue since the book is already placed and published? I have a third almost completed. Should I look for someone to represent both? What are your thoughts? Thanks."

--John Bingham

You are asking several questions here, and we’ll start by addressing what is one of the more universal questions for aspiring authors: if you have written multiple books, or if you have multiple book concepts, should you query an agent about all of them at once?

As a rule of thumb, when researching and querying agents, it’s best to choose one concept and stick to it. This will enable you to be more targeted when researching and approaching agents, and to be more focused in your query letter. It will make you seem less scattered, and will help an agent quickly and easily get his mind around the concept at hand. (Some queries are so scattered that half the agent’s battle is trying to figure out exactly what the work is about.) Querying with one concept at a time will also make sure it gets the attention it deserves: when someone pitches ten concepts at once, it can cheapen all of them.

The downside of querying with just one concept is that there is always the remote chance that agents dislike the concept you queried about, but would have been interested in a concept you never mentioned. But then again, if you choose one concept and are rejected, there is nothing to prevent you from querying agents all over again with one of your other concepts.

While this is a basic rule of thumb, as with everything in publishing, the answer can become infinitely more complex, depending on the particular scenario. For example, do you have one fiction and one non-fiction concept? (In which case you should most likely query separate agents for each.) Have you written four novels, and are they all part of a series? (You should query with the first book alone, but mention that it is part of a series.) Are your six concepts all non-fiction, and all in different genres? (Many agents will focus on certain genres, and an agent who represents serious history may not be interested in representing a commercial fitness book.) Have you written one academic work and one for the trade? (Agents will rarely represent purely academic books, and you may need to submit directly to a university press.) Is one of your books heavily illustrated and the other straight text? (The agent who represents a book of straight text may not want to represent a coffee table book.) Etc. etc.

As you can see from these few scenarios, agents’ needs differ radically, and it would be fairly unusual to find an agent who is eager to represent one author for a broad array of genres. Additionally, an important part of landing an author a deal, particularly when it comes to non-fiction, is her expertise and credibility in a particular genre—thus it may be easy to land a deal for a work of history from a history professor at Harvard, but impossible to land this same author a cookbook deal. Likewise, the agent who represents literary fiction may not want to represent commercial fiction—and vice versa.

In your particular case, you also asked, “Is it too late for me a find an agent to represent my financial interests going forward on [an already published] work? If it is not, do agents typically expect a lower percentage of the revenue since the book is already placed and published?” The bulk of the agent’s effort takes place before a book is published: the primarily role of the agent is to help find a publisher, negotiate a deal and negotiate a contract; they may also help brainstorm a concept, edit a proposal, and work on subsidiary rights. What an agent does not do is get involved in publicity and promotion—that is the job of the publicist. Thus in most cases, there is very little, if anything, for an agent to do once a book is published, and thus it would be unusual for an agent to want to represent an already published book (unless there is sub-rights work to do), and you may not even want this, as you may end up paying him for nothing. The standard industry commission is 15%, and it is unusual for an agent to vary from this, regardless of what stage a book is in.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Once I land an agent, how long does it take to land a book deal?

"How long does it take for publishers to make a decision on a MS? My agent has had my MS to some publishing houses for almost a year."


It would be convenient to tell you that an agent’s submission takes exactly 10 days, or 3 weeks, or 2 months—but this would be simplistic. To give you a thorough response, one must take into account many variables. No two submissions are the same, and no two agents operate the same exact way.

To begin with, the length of time it will take your agent to get a response from publishers will depend on whether you have written fiction or non-fiction, and on whether your proposal (if non-fiction) is, say, 10 pages or 80 pages, or whether your finished manuscript (if fiction) is, say, 200 or 500 pages. Obviously, the shorter the proposal or manuscript, the greater the likelihood of a swift response.

Also affecting response time is your particular agent’s methodology. Some agents will submit a work to, say, 40 publishers simultaneously, in one massive round, while others will submit to only a few publishers at a time, in rounds, and wait to hear back before submitting another round. If your agent’s methodology is the former, then you may have an answer in a matter of weeks or even days, while if the latter, a submission can drag on for many, many months.

Also affecting response time is how aggressive your agent is in following up with publishers. Some agents send out proposals or manuscripts and don’t prod publishers for months; others will get on the phone the next day and ask if they’ve read it. Another factor is how well-respected your agent is: submissions from some agents will get read right away, while submissions from others might sit on a pile for many weeks. Another factor is your agent’s choice of editors: some editors are known for fast responses, while others are known to take their time. Additionally, if an editor likes a work he will often have to share it with colleagues; thus even if he reads quickly, his colleagues may take longer, and this can affect response time.

In general, if I had to make a blanket estimate, I would say that a good agent should be able to hear back from a proposal submission within 8 weeks, and from a manuscript submission within 12 weeks. If your agent submits in rounds, then you will have to tack on that period of waiting time for each additional round.

There are exceptions, but in general, there is no reason why any particular round of submissions should take much longer than this. And even if your agent works in rounds, there is no reason why any given submission should drag on for more than a year. It sounds, in your case, as if your agent is submitting to too few houses, in rounds which are too small, and is waiting too long to hear back.

When you sign with an agent, always request an out clause, which will give you the option of terminating the relationship after, say, six months or one year, if things aren’t going the way you’d hoped. This way, if your agent is non-responsive, or taking too long to submit, you can always terminate and go elsewhere. If you terminate, make sue you request that he supply you with the submission list of where your work has been.

That said, keep in mind that if a year has passed and your book hasn’t sold, that is not necessarily a reason to fire your agent. It may be that your agent showed your work to 40 publishers within 12 weeks, and did a good job, but your book just didn’t sell. There have been times, for example, when I shopped a book around and it didn’t sell, and a year or two later I happened to have lunch with a new editor at a new house, submitted it, and it suddenly sold. If an agent is willing to keep your work on submission like this indefinitely, that is a good thing—as long as he has first thoroughly exhausted his primary rounds of submission. Thus I wouldn’t necessarily advise you to fire your agent because your book hasn’t sold, but I would advise you to fire him if his methodology is inadequate—if he has never submitted it widely, if he has submitted it to the wrong places, or if he is taking months or years to contact only a few editors.

In any case, at the very least, your agent should not keep you in the dark. He should give you some idea of the strategy, of how many places he’s submitting it to, and of when he roughly expects to hear back. And he should give you periodic updates, even if it’s only once every few months. If he’s unwilling to do this, then find someone else.